Song of Riddles: Deciphering the Song of Songs

Song of Riddles: Deciphering the Song of Songs

By Tammy Jacobowitz

For those privileged to grow up with Bible study as a steady companion, the Bible’s distance from the sensibilities, assumptions, and conditions of our world may take time to detect. Among the gifts of immersion in the verses, chapters, and books of the Torah is a strong sense of familiarity with the Bible’s contours, despite the seemingly unbridgeable gaps. To take a benign example, how many day school graduates pause when reading the translation “God spoke to Moshe,” as if it were a perfectly relatable occurrence that God speaks to a human being? Yet for many adults who continue to read the Bible seriously, it may be necessary to achieve a certain degree of distanceof separation to negotiate a sense of closeness. The breathing room, as it were, between the self and the text is precisely the space where meaning or sense-making can be forged.
Geula Twersky’s new book Song of Riddles: Deciphering the Song of Songs is a wonderful example of this sort of effort. Learned, erudite, and creative, Twersky boldly takes on the challenge of Shir Hashirim, a book ever in need of a balanced, “updated” interpretation. If you have been exposed to the Song within a traditional context, it is virtually inseparable from its ancient interpretation. As Rabbi Akiva famously taught, the love song ought to be read allegorically, to symbolize the longing and love felt between God and the Jewish people. But if you pick it up as an adult, it can be hard to ignore the evocative imagery and seamlessly assign it only symbolic value. Do you have to choose between a surface reading and its theological overlay?
Twersky will not make you choose. Among the wonders of Twersky’s book is the way in which she manages to occupy an insider’s view of Shir Hashirim, a voice that is intimate with the text, while maintaining the clarity and incisive perspective of a trusty guide who surveys the text and its contours from without. Her insider–outsider gaze is best experienced through her unique version of the rabbinic conclusion. Rather than adopt the allegorical reading wholesale, Twersky engages in a sophisticated analysis of the literary components of the book, drawing on a wide range of academic scholarship on riddles, metaphors, and the Song itself to deftly build her argument: the lovers represent the keruvim (cherubs, divine winged beings charged with guarding), which in turn capture the passionate, intimate connection between God and the Jewish people.
Twersky takes the reader on a fascinating tour inside the Song, exploring its style and alleyways, mining the text for “clues” to decode the larger message or meaning of the book. In her view, the Song’s theological message is deliberately hidden within the nooks and crannies of the Song, “shrouded in the poetic language of riddles.” Obscured, layered, and composite, the oblique keruvim references reflect a paradoxical symbol. In the Temple and in the Song, the keruvim reflect both human yearning for intimacy with the divine, as well as an impossible distance from God.

Twersky’s book is filled with close, careful readings of verses, although the book is organized by topic, not by the order of the Song. As she tracks down textual anomalies, metaphors, and allusions, Twersky continuously comes to the conclusion that the keruvim are the best explanation for problems in the Song that have long vexed scholars in both the traditional and academic camps. Her arguments are creative and highly original, but one of the book’s significant contributions is the footnotes, in which she reviews and summarizes a great deal of previous work on the Song. Newcomers to the Song will gain a thorough understanding of the book, and veteran readers will benefit from her novel suggestions and interpretations. Twersky’s book is a wonderful read for all those looking to carve out space for an adult reading of the Bible.   

Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz is the chair of the Tanakh department at SAR High School in Riverdale, New York, and is the founding director of Makom B’Siach at SAR, an immersive adult education program for parents. She is an adjunct faculty member of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, where she teaches the pedagogy of Tanakh.

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